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The Taíno are pre-Colombian indigenous Amerindian inhabitants of the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles islands, which include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The seafaring Taíno are relatives of the Arawakan peoples of South America. Their language is a member of the Maipurean linguistic family, which ranges from South America across the Caribbean, and is thought to have been part of the larger, hypothetical group of Arawakan languages that would have spread over an even wider area. The Taíno of the Bahamas were known as the Lucayan.

Depiction of a Taino Village

At the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, there were five Taíno "kingdoms" or territories on Hispaniola, each led by a principal Cacique (chieftain), to whom tribute was paid. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the largest Taíno population centers may have contained around 3,000 people or more. The Taíno were historical neighbors and enemies of the Carib, another group with origins in South America who lived principally in the Lesser Antilles. The relationship between the two groups has been the subject of much study.

The Taíno society was arguably destroyed in the 18th century, decimated by introduced diseases, and forced assimilation into the plantation economy that Spain imposed in its Caribbean colonies, with its subsequent importation of African slave workers. It is argued that there were substantial mestizage as well as several Indian pueblos that survived into the 19th Century in Cuba. The Spaniards who first arrived in the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola in 1492, and later in Puerto Rico in 1508, did not bring women. They took Taíno wives in civil marriages, and had mestizo children.

The Taíno came to the Caribbean islands by way of Guyana and Venezuela into Trinidad going North and west into the entire Antiles approximately 1000 BCE, following the migration of the Ciboney. The Taíno traded heavily with other non-Taíno tribes in Florida and Central America where the Taíno sometimes had outposts, though no permanent settlements. The Caribs followed the Taíno into the Antiles about 1000 CE, where they displaced and assimilated the Igneri, an Arawakan people of the Lesser Antilles. They never gained a foothold in the Greater Antilles or the northernmost tips of the Lesser Antilles.

The Carib were descended from South American mainland populations. The Caribs are sometimes considered Arawakan, though similarities in language may have evolved out of centuries of close contact between the groups, both before and after coming to the Caribbean (see below). At any rate, the Arawaks and Caribs exhibited enough differences in social and political organization to merit referring to them as different nations.

When the Taíno were introduced to Europeans, it was done in phases as this is how they colonised the Caribbean. Columbus had called the Northern Islanders, Taíno, from the Arawakan word for "friendly people" as contrasted by the hostile Carib. This name applied to all the Island Taíno who in the Lesser Antilles were often labeled according to their specific Taíno tribe.

Other Europeans arriving in South America called the same culture of people Arawak from the Arawakan word for cassava flour, a staple of the race. From this, the language and the people were eventually called Arawak. It is was later realised that the culture and language and indeed the race of peoples known as Arawak and those known as Taíno were one and the same and were often diferentiated as the Mainland Taíno or Mainland Arawak living in Guyana and Venezuela, the Island Taíno or Island Arawak living in the Windward Islands and simply, the Taíno, living in the Greater Antilles and the Leeward Islands.

Going through time, different writers; travellers, historians, linguists, anthropologists, etc., have interchangebly used these terms. Taíno has been used to mean the Greater Antillean tribes only, those plus the Bahamas tribes, those and the Leeward Islands tribes or all those excluding the Puerto Rican tribes and Leeward tribes. Island Taíno has been used to refer to those living in the Windward Islands only, those in the northern Caribbean only or those living in any of the islands. Modern historians, linguists and anthropologists now hold that the term Taíno should refer to all the Taíno/Arawak tribes except for the Caribs. The Caribs are not seen by anthropologists nor historians as being the same people although linguists are still debating whether the Carib language is an Arawakan dialect or creole language — or perhaps a distinct language, with an Arawakan pidgin often used in communication.

Culture and lifestyle
In the center of a typical Taíno village (yucayeque) was a flat court (batey) used for various social activities such as games, various festivals and public ceremonies. Houses would surround this court. The Taíno played a ceremonial ball game called "Batu" between opposing teams (of 10 to 30 players per team) using a solid rubber ball. Batu was also used for conflict resolution between communities.

Taíno society was divided into four main sections:

  1. naboria (common people)
  2. nitaíno (sub-chiefs)
  3. bohique (priests/healers)
  4. cacique (chieftains)

Often, the general population lived in large circular buildings (bohio), constructed with wooden poles, woven straw, and palm leaves. These houses could hold 10-15 families. The caciques and his family would live in rectangular buildings (caney) of similar construction, with wooden porches. Taíno home furnishings included cotton hammocks (hamaca), mats made of palms, wooden chairs (dujo) with woven seats, platforms, and cradles for children. Some Taíno practiced polygamy. Men, and sometimes women, might have 2 or 3 spouses, and the caciques would marry as many as 30.

The Taíno practised a mainly agrarian lifestyle but also fished and hunted. A frequently worn hair style featured bangs in front and longer hair in back. They sometimes wore gold jewellery, paint, and/or, shells. Taíno men sometimes wore short skirts. Taino women wore a similar garment (nagua) after marriage.

The Taíno spoke a form of Arawak and used the words: barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), canoa (canoe), tabaco (tobacco), yuca (yucca) and Huracan (hurricane) which have been incorporated into the Spanish and English languages.

Food and agriculture
The Taíno diet
was centered around vegetables, meat and fish. There never were many large wild animals to hunt on the islands, but small animals such as rodents, bats, earthworms, ducks, turtles, and birds were utilized.

Taíno groups in the interior of the islands relied more on agriculture. Their crops were raised in a conuco, a large mound, which was packed with leaves to prevent erosion and then planted with a variety of crops to assure that something would grow, no matter what the weather conditions. They used a coa, an early kind of hoe made completely out of wood. One of the primary crops cultivated by the Taíno was cassava, which they ate as a flat bread similar to a tortilla. The Taíno also grew maize, squash, beans, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, peanuts as well as tobacco.

The Taíno used cotton, hemp and palm extensively for fishing nets and ropes. Their dugout canoes (Kanoa) were made in various sizes, which could hold from 2 to 150 people. An average sized Kanoa would hold about 15 - 20 persons. They used bows and arrows, and sometimes put various poisons on their arrowheads. They used spears for fishing. For warfare, they employed the use of a wooden war club, which they called a macana, that was about one inch thick and was similar to the cocomacaque.

The Taíno respected all forms of life and recognized the importance of giving thanks, as well as honoring ancestors and spiritual beings whom they called Cemi or Zemi. Many stone carvings of Cemi have survived. Some of the stalagmites of the Caves of Dondon were carved into the figures of Cemi. The Cemi are sometimes represented by toads, turtles, snakes, caiman and various abstract and human-like faces.

Some of the carved Cemi include a small table or tray which is believed to be a receptacle for hallucinogenic snuff called Cohoba prepared from the beans of a species of Anadenanthera tree. These trays have been found with ornately carved snuff tubes.

During certain ceremonies, the Taíno would induce vomiting with a swallowing stick. This was to purge the body of impurities, both a literal physical purging and a symbolic spiritual purging. After the serving of communal bread, first to the Cemi, then to the cacique, and then to the common people; the village epic would be sung and accompanied by maraca and other instruments.

Taíno oral tradition explains that the sun and moon come out of caves. Another story tells that people once lived in caves and only came out at night, because it was believed that the Sun would transform them. The origin of the oceans is described in the story of a huge flood which occurred when a father murdered his son (who was about to murder the father), and then put his bones into a gourd or calabash. These bones then turned to fish and the gourd broke and all the water of the world came pouring out.

The Supreme God was called "Yucahú", which means "white yuca", or "the spirit of the yuca", for the yuca was the main source of food of the Taínos, and as such it was revered. The Taínos of Quisqueya (Dominican Republic) called him "Yucahú Bagua Maorocotí", which means "White Yuca, great and powerful as the sea and the mountains". "Yucahú" was also the invisible spirit of the sky, whose mother was "Atabey", the mother of the gods and spirit of the waters. Other names for this goddess include "Guabancex", "Atabei", "Atabeyra", "Atabex", and "Guimazoa". "Juracán" was the evil god of storms, although some historians claim this was only the Taíno term for "storm", and the real goddess of storms was "Guabancex". Other minor gods or "cemíes" include "Boinayel" (god of rain, in other sources the Sun god), the messenger "Guataubá", "Deminán Caracaracol" (who broke the gourd and caused the flooding of the world and the spreading of the waters), "Opiyelguabirán" (a dog-shaped god), and "Maketaori Guayaba" (the ruler of the Coaybay, the underworld).

The Taínos believed that the souls of the dead go to Coaybay, the underworld, and there they rest by day, and when night comes they assume the form of bats and eat the fruit "guayaba".

Some anthropologists assert that some or all of the Petwo Voodoo rites may have their origins in Taíno religion.

Columbus and the Taíno
Columbus and his crew, landing in the Bahamas on October 12th, 1492 were the first Europeans to encounter the Taino people. It was Columbus who called the Taino "Indians", an identification that has grown to encompass all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

There is debate as to how many Taíno inhabited Hispaniola when Columbus landed in 1492. The Catholic priest and contemporary historian Bartolome de Las Casas wrote (1561) in his multivolume History of the Indies:

"There were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?"

It is proposed by some historians today that Las Casas's figures for the pre-contact levels of the Taino population were an exaggeration and that a figure closer to one million is more likely. The Taino population estimates range all over, from a few hundred thousand up to 8,000,000. They were not immune to European diseases, notably smallpox, but many of them were worked to death in the mines and fields, put to death in harsh put-downs of revolts or committed suicide to escape their cruel new masters. Some academics have suggested that the numbers the population had shrunk to 60,000 and by 1531 to 3000 in Hispanola.

On Columbus' 2nd voyage, he began to require tribute from the Taíno in Hispanola. Each adult over 14 years of age, was expected to deliver a certain quantity of gold. In the earlier days of the conquest, if this tribute was not observed, the Taino were either mutilated or executed. Later on, fearing a loss of labor forces, they were ordered to bring 25 lb (11 kg) of cotton. This also gave way to a service requirement called "encomienda". Under this system, Taino were required to work for a Spanish land owner for most of the year, which left little time to tend to their own community affairs.

Taíno opposition
In 1511, several caciques in Puerto Rico allied with the Caribs and tried to oust the Spaniards. The revolt was pacified by the forces of Governor Juan Ponce de León. Hatuey, a Taíno chieftan who had fled Hispañola to Cuba with 400 natives in order to unite the Cuban natives, was burned at the stake on February 2, 1512. In Hispañola, a Taíno chieftain named Enriquillo mobilized over 3000 remaining Taíno in a rebellion in the 1530s.

Taíno heritage in modern times
Many people still claim to be descendants of the Taíno, most notably among Puerto Ricans, both on the island and US mainland, especially in Florida. Taíno descendants have been active in trying to assert a call for recognition of their tribe with regular visits to meetings at the United Nations. Tribal sovereignty in the United States is the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America. Therefore, as 'sovereign', no recognition from any other 'authority' is required. While no Taíno entity is currently recognized via the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, governmental recognition for Taíno has extended into the United States and Puerto Rico. Federal courts have not universally required membership in federally recognized tribes for a person to be classified as Indian. Even at times, a person's membership in a federally recognized tribe was not sufficient for classification as Indian in the eyes of the courts.

Now the Commonwealth of Virginia, while the region has been a native homeland for at least twelve thousand years, none of the tribal nations within the commonwealth today are recognized by the U.S. federal government. Although the histories of the indigenous peoples of Virginia have been richly documented since the colonial period, they have also been appropriated and obscured by Euro-American conquest mythology and its voracious appetite for caricatures of Pocahontas. Racial ideology and racist legislation in the twentieth century also worked to obfuscate the identities and histories of Indian people in Virginia.

The U.S. Constitution (Article 1 Section 8) sets the foundation for the federal governmentís trust responsibility to Indian nations, which has been reinforced over the years through various treaties, laws, and court rulings. The U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is considered a self-governing autonomous political unit voluntarily associated with the United States. Its chief of state is the President of the United States of America, and the head of the Puerto Rican government is an elected governor. While there are no federally recognized land bases for American Natives in Puerto Rico, thousands of TaÌnos, reside throughout the commonwealth.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the American nation-state, operating through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and various other federal agencies, engaged in a policy of assimilation: indigenous peoples were to be detribalized and incorporated as individual citizens into the American nation. The U.S. federal government recognizes tribal nations as "domestic dependent nations" and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments. The reference to Indians in the Constitution is not to grant local sovereignty. The only references are:

  • Article 1, Section 2, which states, "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." This reference is for determining the number of representatives and taxes for a state. This does not allow for the exclusion of Indians from taxes and later federal laws grant local sovereignty to tribal nations, but do not grant full sovereignty equivalent to that of foreign nations, hence the term "domestic dependent nations".
  • Article 1, Section 8, which states, "[The Congress shall have Power...] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes

Recently, a few Taíno organizations, such as The Estado Nactional Soberano de Borinken, The United Confederation of Taíno People and The Jatibonicù Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriken (Puerto Rico), have been established to put forth these claims. What some refer to as the Taíno revival movement can be seen as an integral part of the wider resurgence in Caribbean indigenous self-identification and organization.


The Taino Boriken Peoples are the original Peoples of the Island of Boriken, which is known today as Puerto Rico. Like other Indigenous (First NationÕs) Peoples we face many problems as a direct result of colonialism. One of the gravest is the lack of recognition of our rights as Indigenous Peoples to our lands and culture.


Our islands were originally invaded by the Spanish Crown beginning in 1492 with the expiditions of Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon (his shipmate). In a short period of time, our ancestors faced genocide and enslavement, under the "repartimeinto" and "encomienda" system of Spanish Colonial Rule. The objective of these systems was to enslave our people for labor, Christianize (ÔwhitenÕ or ÔseasonÕ) our Peoples and protect us from our own "infidel state". According to the Crown only by forcibly denying us our freedom and appropriating our lands and labor could our civilization and assimilation be successful. As the Taino were now subjects of the Crown they were not only enslaved but required to pay monetary tributes to the colonizers. Not only did the natural resource wealth dug up from our lands by Taino slaves go to the Crown, but also agricultural crops and products produced - all in exchange for the so-called protections afforded by the Monarchy.

Under these systems and their "doctrine of discovery", Spain declared title to our lands and even our women. After over 400 years of Spain's colonial rule, the Puerto Rico's local political leadership successfully negotiated a Charter of Autonomy, granting a right to full representation in the Spanish Parliament of the Taino People. Soon after granting this "right" however, at the close of the Spanish American War Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in complete violation of International Law. The only express language regarding citizenship upon cessation was that which permitted Spanish residents of the island to maintain the Spanish citizenship. This provision was identified in the Treaty of Paris.

In contrast, the Indigenous Peoples of Puerto Rico had no clear definition as to their status vis a vis their new colonizers, the US. Article IX of the Treaty refers to the status of citizens who did not maintain their allegiance to the Spanish Crown stating "the civil and political status of the Native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the US shall be determined by Congress". Thus began the U.S. congressional plenary power over the daily lives of all the citizens of Boriken aka Puerto Rico. As a result of Puerto Rico's Commonwealth status, the island's Governor is limited in his or her ability to make change. With that in mind, negotiating with the Government of Puerto Rico will get the Taino Peoples only so far, especially with regard to indigenous rights and sacred sites such as the Caguana Ceremonial Center, which is under the control of the National Parks Service - an agency regulated by the U.S.

Given Puerto Rico's semi-sovereign status and semi-self-determination abilities, the Taino People must turn our attention to the U.S. treaty and laws whose claim to be our "guardian and protector" and who has plenary power over us. Taking over the island where Spain left off, the U.S. continues the tradition of keeping Puerto Rico in a state of tutelage through its colonial rule over the Island. The Insular cases demonstrate the invisible status of Puerto Rico at the national and international level. In the case DeLima v Bidwell, Justice Brown [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeLima_v._Bidwell], (1901), one of a group of the first Insular Cases decided by the US Supreme Court, held "the Island of Porto Rico [sic] is a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States but not part of the United States within the revenue clauses of the Constitution". Justice White concurs and clarifies Justice Brown's holding; "in an international sense Porto Rico [sic] was not a foreign country, since it was subject to the sovereignty of and was owned by the US, it was foreign to the United States in a domestic sense, because the Island had not been incorporated into the US, but was merely appurtenant thereto as a possession." These words have sealed Puerto Rico's political fate. It is continually considered a foreign nation in some instances and domestic in others. Thus at the whim of U.S. Congress, Puerto Rico is part of or apart from the U.S. at any given time, which is a situation that directly affects the Taino Boriken (Boricua) Peoples of the island. Taino at the International Level like many of our indigenous relatives, we too have been working at the international level at the U.N. to raise awareness about our struggle on repeated (annual) occassions. We have also begun to work within the process of the Organization of American States. However since Puerto Rico is a foreign nation in certain situations and domestic concern for others, it is important to note that the Taino are colonized within the United Nations system and at the OAS. For example, to access economic support from the OAS for the purposes participating at the recent meeting of the "Points of Consensus on the OAS Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples", the Taino were considered a "domestic concern" under the U.S. As such the Taino did not receive an equal support opportunity to attend these and previous meetings unlike other Indigenous Peoples. With regard to the United Nations system, for over 10 years our representatives have applied to the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples to participate in meetings in Geneva and the United States but have yet to receive a response as to why our applications have not been considered.

These and many other situations are a clear example of the effects of colonialism on the Taino Boriken Peoples as we are inextricably linked yet oppressed in the U.S. colonization. This institutionalized discrimination has affected our ability to participate effectively within these systems as Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean.


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